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June 2017

HBR on The Talent Curse

HBRMayJune2017The May-June 2017 issue of Harvard Business Review also has an article about The Talent Curse: Why High Potentials Struggle and How They Can Grow Through It. I felt the article had glaring weaknesses quite a few times, so here comes my analysis of it. The idea behind the article is that some people, when they are "groomed as future leaders," "feel trapped by others' expectations and fixate on proving themselves worthy", either "blandly conforming" or leaving altogether. The solution is for them to accept help, bring "all facets of themselves to the job" (I had to laugh at the inanity of that comment - Zadie Smith, who probably will never be cited in a business magazine unless I do the writing, mentioned when she was in Dallas promoting her latest book Swing Time how the quest for belonging and finding one's tribe was a very American pursuit, and I think the quest of bringing one's whole self to the job is archetypically American too) and, perhaps the one drop of wisdom here, to treat "the present like a final destination."

First of all, I find the name "Talent Curse", while catchy, incredibly inaccurate. In other words, I don't think there is a talent curse. I think talent management is like the R&D drug pipeline: you've got to launch some projects to get at least one to work down the road. You select multiple employees to be on the talent track, knowing that not everybody will turn out to be leadership material, but you can't say who it is until you've put them on the track. Saying that their talent was some sort of curse will make them feel good in retrospect after their careers failed to take off, but many similar employees with the same talent did succeed and, o surprise, didn't fall victims to the same curse. It is a little easy to say you failed because your talent was a curse. Maybe those people failed precisely because their reaction to the honor (either conforming blandly or leaving) showed that they were not leadership material after all. Culling out such people is part of the process of identifying the true future leaders. 

The article also suffers from the absence of context given to the examples' stories. We don't know their age, their country, their background - how long have they have been out of school? in that company? in that position? how have they reacted to high-pressure assignments before? were they the first people in their families to go to college or did every relative go to the Ivy League?  

It also suffers from some quite ridiculous examples, such as the one of "Laura", who left a PhD program in artificial intelligence to become a consultant and then "a role in the strategy function of a consumer goods company." When given a high-profile assignment, she floundered, falling "into a spiral of overwork, anxious to show others - and herself - that she could handle the challenge." Although sales grew, she feared people didn't dare tell her what they really thought of her performance and her bosses, "accustomed to her competent and composed demeanor", didn't realize she needed some sort of help from them, although they did praise her for her independence and initiative. In other words, Laura needed a cheerleading battalion. Well, Laura, the obstacles are in your head, my dear. It's not other people's job to read your mind. Maybe there would be a case to give such employees a career coach, but again I'm not sure if it makes sense to actually rescue people like Laura from herself. There are more talented employees than there are high-impact managerial positions. Perhaps a career coach would be more useful once the employee has made it higher up in the hierarchy.

Then other employees, when put on the high-potential track, stopped striving to develop their skills and focused only on where their talent shone, losing their edge and spoke of "paralysis" to the HBR authors. If the idea of succeeding gives you a deer-in-the-headlights look, just imagine when you face a major high-stakes decision, like a major product recall. I don't feel sorry for those people not making it to the next promotion.

Then, the involuntarily funny moment: the 2nd sign of trouble, "A preoccupation with image despite a yearning for authenticity." Apparently some employees feel inauthentic when they can't bring their whole selves to work. Good Lord. You know your colleagues aren't your friends, right? You're not supposed to bare your soul with them. I guess it's easier for people from Europe to understand, since over there it is more acceptable to have a life outside work. The famous Laura from above fantasized about quitting and getting a job where she could be "true to herself". This is one of the surest signs of professional immaturity that I've seen in a long time. No wonder she didn't do so well on the talent track. The HBR authors also point out this often happens to business school students, who go to business school for the same reason: to find "a space where they could discover and recover who they really were." This is why I said above it would have been helpful to know the age and work history of people like Laura. If she's, say, 27, then I can chalk up her immaturity to her age. If she's 37, then it becomes a different problem. 

Even better: the authors cite psychologist Alice Miller and her work on "the drama of the gifted child." Her idea is that "inquisitive and intelligent children often learn to hide their feelings and needs to meet their doting parents' expectations." Well, if adult employees on the talent track are reduced to the role of children and managers are supposed to play the role of doting parents, I can see why companies are going to have a problem. Your manager is not your parent. I'm not even going to try to explain that.

Then there is another story at the end of the 3rd sign, "the postponement of meaningful work" (as a sign of trouble), that suggests some of those employees profiled are very young. That one took the most prestigious job offer in his class after graduating without questioning whether that was really what he wanted to do, and then hoped to transition out, somehow, without really knowing where. But there was no mention of the company actually putting him on a talent track after hiring him. And the dear Laura also had contradictory dreams, talking both of returning to get her PhD and to become a COO some day. Maybe she's too young to be put on any sort of talent track. 

The authors' advice to break the talent curse is rather silly ("bring your whole self, not just your best self, to work") except for the last part, which is to treat your current work as a destination rather than a stepping-stone. Laura, though, seems past the redeeming point. When she said she was considering leaving, she was offered a bigger role, but "six months into the new role, she had not yet negotiated her package." Didn't that raise any red flag at her company that she wasn't actually competent to do the job? Weren't alarm bells blaring? For whatever reason, Laura is self-sabotaging. She has some pretty excuses to explain it: "What would they think if I worried about the contract, the salary and things like that?" Well, Laura, they'd think you're a professional, that's what they'd think. Right now you've disappointed your sponsor and perhaps he is in denial that he so misjudged you, giving you a second chance long past the point where you deserved it.

The authors write: "The best way to develop leaders, in the end, is to help them lead." That is not the same thing as enabling people who clearly are not ready for leadership positions. Sponsors should be aware of their blind spots, know when to admit a protege has underperformed and move on. You did your best. Cut your losses. You can find someone else more deserving of the opportunity. That is, sadly, not the message of this not-so-great HBR article.  

HBR: State Street and Social Responsibility

HBRMayJune2017I enjoyed this article about State Street's innovative approach to create employment for at-risk youths, in the May-June 2017 issue of Harvard Business Review. (The result is called Boston WINs, which stands for "workforce investment network.") The key, the article explains, is a system to support kids as they move through school and into the workforce. State Street has developed a highly original process where it has enlisted five nonprofits to support at-risk youths in a manner akin to a relay race: each nonprofit focuses on what it does best, for instance teaching study skills or finding a good fit for college or applying to university, and then passes off the student to another nonprofit to fulfill different needs. It allows each nonprofit to focus on what it does best and create meaningful impact for the students.

In the words of State Street CEO Joseph Hooley: "Getting students through schools, into college, and then into good jobs requires managing a series of handoffs and transitions, just as runners in a relay race have to pass the baton."

The five partners ultimately selected to be part of the experiment were: Year Up, which provides "intensive skills training for low-income young adults", UAspire, which helps students "find ways to finance college, The Boston Private Industry Council, which helps "students obtain workplace experience and find a path from school to work", College Advising Corps, which "assists students with the college search and application process", and Bottom Line, which "helps low-income and first-generation students get to and through college." 

In its first year, Boston WINs served close to 20,000 youth and State Street hired over 200 of the Boston WINs graduates (note that not all 20,000 graduated in their first year.) 20 schools are participating this year, and the students have a list of 12 milestones they much reach by certain dates. State Street "opened a facility at the University of Massachusetts that allows students to work part-time, gaining job experience and giving us a look at how they work." It also has "more than 50 interns from Bunker Hill Community College in any given time." The program launched in June 2015 and State Street has committed to four years of funding, so the program is at its halfway mark now, but it seems highly promising, if two years can ever be enough to judge such things.

In some ways, it reminded me of recent approaches to innovation, especially for pharma, where big pharmaceutical companies have developed agreements with universities where the universities, funded by big pharma, focus on early-stage innovation and big pharma gets first look for commercialization. Obviously there are many differences too but it touches upon specializing, focusing on what one does best. I wonder if we'll see a continuation of this trend toward more segmentation of the R&D pipeline, with different companies becoming responsible for different stages. The difficulty would be to work out the monetary compensation aspects. But maybe a time will come where this makes business sense.

Here's to hoping Boston WINs continues for many more years!